Originally created 05/11/05

Benedict's quest to reach out to flock tests security



VATICAN CITY - It was a security detail's nightmare, and with Benedict XVI's first days as pope spiced up with seemingly fearless forays into the public, it could be a recurring one.

Standing tall in the rear seat of a black Mercedes convertible, its top rolled back, Benedict gripped a roof bar for support with one hand and with his other waved to pilgrims pressing up against barricades.

Romans on balconies cheered as he rode down a boulevard on his way to St. John Lateran Basilica last weekend. Security men, in dark suits and ties, trotted briskly alongside and looked around anxiously.

While delighting the public, Benedict is putting some tenets of security to a tough test as he works to recast his image from that of a strict, office-bound Vatican cardinal into a caring pastor in touch with his flock.

"That he exposes himself in such a manner surely causes a lot of worry to those in charge of his security," said Shabtai Shavit, former head of Israel's Mossad spy agency.

"Any security official responsible for the pope's life would not accept this kind of exposure to become routine," Shavit told The Associated Press by telephone.

But the pope is the boss, and in his first three weeks on the job, a pattern seems to be emerging: the 78-year-old pontiff, who for nearly two decades was largely invisible to the public as John Paul's doctrinal watchdog, is choosing to make himself highly visible.

At the end of his installation ceremony last month in packed St. Peter's Square, Benedict took his first papal spin, standing in a white, open-topped vehicle almost identical to the one John Paul II was riding in when he was shot in 1981.

"I can only imagine that he's really trying to be close to the people," said Rudolf Zewell, a Vatican-watcher for the German weekly Rheinische-Merkur.

Those who knew German Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger before he became pope insist he never shied from people. An Associated Press reporter recalled how Ratzinger, dressed in a black topcoat and beret, took a break between church ceremonies one day several years ago by going for a stroll near the Vatican and chatting with a passerby.

And during his visit Saturday to two basilicas in Rome, Benedict clasped many of the outstretched hands of the faithful.

Security doesn't seem to be a pressing concern for Benedict.

At a Swiss Guard ceremony to swear in new members of the 499-year-old papal protection corps, Benedict said that because of them a pope can "carry out his mission without worry for his own security."

Although the guards are known for their plumed helmets and halberds, some also pack guns. Security is also provided by plainclothes agents and Italian police, who patrol outside the square and stand ready as sharpshooters atop buildings during public ceremonies.

During the latter years of John Paul's papacy, he was increasingly immobile because of Parkinson's disease and hip and knee problems. But for most of his 26 years as pontiff, and weather permitting, John Paul would take an open-topped limousine to visit Rome parishes on Sundays. Sometimes he walked up to reporters covering papal ceremonies to banter.

"There's a constant practice, already set in motion for John Paul II, not to put barriers between the pope and the people, especially in Rome," said Italian journalist Orazio Petrosillo.

Many people remember the "popemobile," a white, boxy vehicle with bulletproof glass around the passenger compartment. But John Paul almost exclusively reserved the vehicle for his travels abroad or for pilgrimages around Italy.

One exception was his return to the Vatican in February after being hospitalized for breathing problems and the flu, when he was driven in the "popemobile" so he could be protected from the cold evening air.

Shavit said the risks could be somewhat contained if Benedict does his people-pleasing spins in a "defined area, which has some kind of security measures."

Since the Sept. 11 attacks, the Vatican has tightened security in St. Peter's Square when the pope is present: Knapsacks, purses and camera bags are searched or passed through X-ray machines, and visitors must pass through metal-detection gates or submit to a metal-detecting wand check.